Physical activity is now recognized as a major factor in staying healthy and reducing the risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other health problems. Joining a health club or fitness center can be an excellent way to get motivated and get moving. But experts warn that you should take time to choose wisely or risk spending money without getting the benefits you seek.

Reaching the goal of accumulating 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity most days of the week doesn't have to be reached through "exercise." Gardening, dancing and active playtime with your children can achieve the goal. But many people find that exercise classes (like aerobics, kickboxing, or martial arts) or a place for indoor exercise on a walking track, or with equipment like treadmills and bikes, make a big difference in getting exercise into their day. Fitness centers may also offer strength-training.

If you're looking for a health club or fitness center, location should be a prime factor. If it's out of your way, that's just one more barrier to make exercise part of your routine. Deciding what time of day you want to exercise will help you select the most convenient site, near home or your workplace, for example.

Visit the center during the time you plan to use it. The greatest equipment does no good if there is a long wait to use it. If classes would keep you motivated, check for a variety of options among those that are appealing, and at times that work for you.

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Talk to members. Notice if the facility is kept clean, if equipment is in working order and if the locker room is secure. If you need childcare on the premises, check it out carefully.

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If you want to take any form of exercise that is new to you, it's vital to ask for details about the staff who would be working with you. Trainers and instructors should be certified through a nationally-recognized organization like the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Council on Exercise (ACE), or the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America - not a mail-order certificate.

Make sure that you would be comfortable and enjoy coming to the facility. Talk to enough staff and members to see if the goals and attitudes of the people there match yours. Are people focused only on heavy weightlifting or weight loss, or is there a sincere interest in exercise as part of an overall health-promoting lifestyle? See if you can get a trial membership, or at least a few day passes.

If you find a center that feels right for you, look over the contract carefully. Many people have been duped by relying on what salespeople say instead of what's in writing. Inquire whether you can cancel your membership if you change your mind with 30 days' notice, rather than being obligated for a year's payment. Make sure that advance payments are refundable if the club closes before your membership expires. And check with your local Better Business Bureau or state Consumer Protection Board to make sure no complaints have been lodged against the center.

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A good fitness facility offers all-weather exercise with good professional help and the enjoyable company of others. It's not a necessity for keeping fit and healthy, but if it helps you, it can be a wise investment. But choose carefully and don't make a rushed decision.